TL;DR – Five movies and counting
So That is quite a bold statement in the title, however, as the year has gone on there seems to have been a number of independent decisions in Hollywood that has led to five different films using John Denver as part of their soundtracks. However, these are not just songs on the soundtracks, each film has incorporated them into their plots in unique and interesting ways. So today we are going to look at the films and how they used their songs. Now because we are talking about films released this year there will be [SPOILERS] for Kingsman, Logan Lucky, Aliens: Covenant, Okja & Free Fire. Before we dive in let’s take a look at the man who you may not know, but you have more than likely heard in your lives.
Indeed, if you have never heard of John Denver I can bet that you have heard one of his songs in the past, or a cover of one of his songs like in Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば). John Denver was a folk musician who wrote and/or released hundreds of songs during his career, he had four platinum albums, won numerous awards including an Emmy and Grammy, he was a friend of Muppets, and wrote about his love for life in the country, environmentalism and exploration. He was a prolific writer of music up until his untimely death in a plane accident, but his legacy lives on to today. Indeed, he is one of only two people to have two different states in the USA declare his music to be a state song. So in today’s article, we will be looking at Take Me Home, Country Roads and Annie’s Song, but these two just a fraction of the many songs he has written over his long career of which you can listen to here.
So let’s start with the most recent film on the list Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a film that is almost as good as the original, which in today’s sequel world is quite an accomplishment (see Review). Now while we also get Annie’s Song playing in the bar which helped Eggsy (Taron Egerton) realise which trigger to use to wake up Harry (Colin Firth), you have to say the song with the biggest impact was Take Me Home, Country Roads. So we get a little hint of Country Roads even before we find out that we are going to be spending a large chunk of this film in Kentucky. Now at first, it feels like the song is only there to give audible reference to the fact that we are in the south of the USA, however, as the movie continues we find it has a deeper meaning for Merlin (Mark Strong), and once again [SPOILERS] incoming. Throughout the film, Merlin shows a desire to get out more because he is tired of watching the people he trains go out and die, only for him to train their replacements, who go out and die, sometimes in front of him. After having to activate the doomsday protocols, this profoundly effects Merlin, which we see throughout the film in his conversations with Ginger (Halle Berry), and all of this comes to a head in the finale of the film when the team are trying to break into Poppy’s (Julianne Moore) headquarters. When in sight of the complex Eggsy steps on a landmine, in a moment Merlin works out what he has to do and freezes the mine, but it only lasts for a second, not enough for people to get to safety so he stands on the landmine in Eggsy’s place. This is a role reversal of what Eggsy’s father did for him all those years ago. Now Merlin knew he was dead, so the only thing he could do is take as many of the henchmen with him, so he starts singing Take Me Home, Country Roads to draw their attention, and to play on Poppy’s Americana fixation. So Merlin sings about going home in the moments before he died sacrificing his life to save others. This makes Country Roads the defining sound of Kingman, and this is a film where Elton John as a cast member, but this is just the first of many plot points where the song has been used this year.
So let’s take a look at how it was used in Logan Lucky. Now to be honest I didn’t really like Logan Lucky as a film (see Review) but even I have to admit that the use of Take Me Home, Country Roads was amazing. When we first meet Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) and his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) the song comes on the radio, and it is used as both a bonding moment between the pair, but also as a way to get insight into Jimmy’s character. We learn what motivates him, and part of his history, and how this song is a part of it. Now one of the subplots of the film is that Sadie is in a beauty pageant and for her talent, she is singing a song, of which she originally chose one of Rhianna’s. However, at the end of the film after the heist was successful, Jimmy finally makes it to his daughter’s pageant, to be fair partly so he could have an alibi. But when Sadie sees her dad in the audience she decides to ditch her prechosen song and instead sing Country Roads acapella with no backing. But given the power of the song soon the whole auditorium is joining in. It is one of the high moments of the entire film, and it is using the song as a way of linking us both back to that conversation at the start of the film, and to provide an audible cue for Jimmy’s character arc. However, it is also a reaffirmation of the themes of the film, of people being stepped on and deciding not to take it anymore, though it is also one of the most adorable moments in recent cinema.
The next film for the year was Aliens: Covenant which I quite liked, but you had to get over how really, really, really, really stupid the scientists were (see Review). In the film, the colony ship Covenant is flying through space to a new planet when it gets hit by a stellar neutrino boost as it was recharging. The burst heavily damages the ship and kills a number of the sleeping crew and colonists, and forces the remaining crew to spend some time repairing the ship before they can proceed. When Tennessee (Danny McBride) is out past the solar sails and away from the interference from the ship an errant communication is picked up by the coms unit in his helmet. When he gets back inside the ship they try and clean up the transmission and sure enough it is a woman signing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. Now as the Covenant was the first human ship in this area of space there should be no humans out there, the crew decide to investigate and thus the plot accelerates. Not only is the song used as a way to propel the plot forward, but once we learn the source it puts the song in sharp relief. We find out the source of the distress call is Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) the last survivor of the Prometheus, not only is the song poignant because she is trapped on a planet so far from home, once we find out what happened to her, the song takes on a visage of someone crying out for help but knowing that there is no help coming.
Okja is a South Korean film by Bong Joon Ho about Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who lives in the mountains raising Okja a giant hippo size pig-like animal. What she does not know is this is all a publicity campaign, and Okja is destined to be eaten along with all her kind, even though they are highly intelligent animals. This is a really odd film with Tilda Winton playing twins, Jake Gyllenhaal doing well I don’t know but it deeply compelling and off-putting, and Okja will hit you in the feels deeper than you will expect. So in the middle of Okja, and in a mad dash through the streets of Seoul, Miji is desperately trying to rescue Okja at the same time as the police, corporate officers from Mirando Corporation, and members of the Animal Liberation Front. It is here as Okja is barrelling through an underground shopping center and slips trying to avoid an old lady in a wheelchair who could not get out of her way. This is the moment where that everyone is at their lowest, Okja is hurt and the police and corporate officials are closing in, the movie slows right down, and then Annie’s Song starts to play and the ALF open their umbrellas to protect Okja from the tranquillizer darts. This is in stark opposition to the slightly mariachi music that had been playing before and is used maybe not as a plot point as in the last examples, but more to show a complete shift in tone. It is that moment just before we realise that everything we know about Okja is wrong. As well as this, Annie’s Song was also used in Free Fire which was released this year, but I have not had a chance to see outside of the scene which plays the song, which is well weird, and you get the feeling from the dialogue that it is refereeing back to something said earlier in the film. If you have seen Free Fire and can shed some light on it please let me know in the comments below.
In the end, what does this mean, well nothing really it is just an interesting happenstance, maybe the climate of the world at the moment has people thinking back to those nostalgic memories of the past, maybe John Denver songs are just really easy to licence. No matter the reason, what is interesting is how the different writers and filmmakers incorporated the music into their films to help move the story along and not just as background filler. So if you are interested, have a look through John Denver’s discography and you’ll discover the joy of one of America’s greatest musicians.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
Have you heard John Denver in any other movies we missed?, let us know what you thought in the comments below, feel free to share this review on any of the social medias and you can follow us Here. Check out all our past reviews and articles Here, and have a happy day.
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Kingsman, Logan Lucky, Aliens: Covenant, Okja & Free Fire.